Masters and Disciples

I met Sumitra Bhave at Dr. Kashinath Ghanekar Auditorium in Thane at the behest of Dr. Mohan Agashe. It was the screening of her film 'Astu', a film that lacks the Bhave touch we have learnt to take for granted. (More about it here: Elephant in the room)

Post the screening, we had a great time recounting the magic of her epic 'Vastupurush'. She seemed weary from age, but her enthusiasm, like most of her films, knew no bounds. Her creative partner Sunil Sukhtankar was discernibly guarded - typical of this tribe - but she seemed free of any baggage, as also claims of being a master filmmaker that she indeed was. Wish I had the opportunity to meet her again but that never happened. Her demise has deprived the pesticide-rich Marathi soil of a rare artist who could create a magic potion of art and activism with rare aplomb.   

The other day, I was overjoyed to catch the soulful timbre of her voice - ironically born out of a voice impediment - in 'Court' fame Chaitanya Tamhane's 'Disciple', a whimsical take on a delightfully introspective theme that refuses to take off (and deserves a court-martial)

Going by the rich accolades and the litany of over-obliging reviews, his film will indeed travel the world over; he is already a merchant of Venice, courtesy the 2020 competition entry. Yet, the gloss of his product can't condone the lackadaisical and lazy effort, basking in the glory of its maker's offbeat stature. The film had so much to go for it - a competent singer-actor (hard to find), a purposeful spoof on the reality TV template organically etched to the protagonist's tale of all trials and no triumphs, and a few enduring frames of everyday conversations that convey more than the gaudy moments that Tamhane chooses to underline with hubristic authority.    

On the face of it, Tamhane narrates the melancholic saga of a classical vocalist but ends up employing the pet motifs of the pseudo avant-garde arsenal to no avail: 'item numbers' rooted in mindless shock value that inevitably disturb the algebra and geometry of the theme. To convey the sexual frustration born out of clumsy infatuation, given all time and attention devoted to a cultivated loyalty to his Guru, the protagonist is made to masturbate on what seems like a staple diet of porn, with not one but two frames devoted to the solo sport. And for a guy who is definitively reticent and inward-looking, emptying his glass of lime juice on a caustic music critic in true-blue Bollywood style looks ridiculously out of place. And then, we also have the over-chewed concluding frame of a beggar rendering a folk tune in a moving train which many reviewers can't stop raving about  - (breathtakingly compelling, delightfully open-ended, surreally immersive, poignantly meditative et al)

Thankfully, Bhave's voice-over is a redeeming feature of this over-indulgent movie. If Tamhane truly cares for the given subject matter, we would urge him to make a biopic on the maverick Kumar Gandharva who exposed musical purists and modernists in the same breath, as also the high and mighty experts who make a living speaking and writing about music. Rich cinematic material there, befitting Tamhane's intrinsic talent, and a beckon of inspiration for aspirants who wish to walk the path that 'Disciple' claims to tread.  

The Peshwa among Doctor-Actors

mohan-agashe – IPHPune
 It's been close to a decade since I first met Dr. Mohan Agashe in the green room of Thane's Gadkari auditorium. Having hosted him at my place on a few occasions, I also had the pleasure and privilege of countless heart-to-heart conversations on his rich and varied clinical, stage and screen experiences as also on the larger issues of life and death...including the elusive spaces between and beyond them... needless to say, to the accompaniment of our favourite beverages.
The good doctor's insightful observations are invariably for keeps. Some of them have stayed with me longer than the others, in no particular order:
Sometimes in life, you are not allowed the luxury to choose. The choices choose you (On why he opted for a career in medicine)  
Ideally, one must have two professions - one for livelihood and the other for joyhood. This is because life rarely allows one the luxury of enjoying what one does and live off it too.
We must train doctors to differentiate between distress and disorder: one need not wait for distress to become a disorder before one begins treating it (Context: primary prevention in psychiatry)
I find playing a character born out of the writer's imagination akin to solving an exam paper. You don't know the exact answer, you write what you know in relation to the question. 
Freud's inspiration for solutions sprang from the plays of Sophocles. In my case, literature, theatre and films helped me understand my patients better - textbooks never did.  
I comprehended the Othello syndrome in the psychiatry ward, not on the theatre deck.
If you can't manage to transfer your cerebral learning to your sensory systems, it is rendered close to useless. (here the given context is acting, but the dictum applies to most things in life)   
The greatest gift of theatre for me is the freedom to establish a totally different relationship with space and time, which is otherwise possible only in one's dreams.
It took me some time to learn that though I knew psychology and psychiatry, the ones who actually practiced them were Jabbar (Patel) and our manager Shirdhar Rajguru. (Context: staging Ghashiram Kotwal performances
The person who taught us how to handle sound and image in films is Satyajit Ray. 
The fun of human life is the concurrent processing inherent in it.
A reading of Stanislavski will certainly improve an actor's psychology, though not necessarily his performance. 
I am extremely cautious when I meet an intellectual devoid of human warmth, because he can potentially abuse his intelligence and sway me in the wrong direction.  
Dr. Agashe, thanks for the wonderful treat you have thrown each time we have met. The Pune reunion we relished the other day proved even more memorable. For us, you are one of the living legends of a Pune that we crave for, especially given the city's rapid fall from grace in recent times.What was once India's leading cultural hub, and the den of mavericks by the dozen - social reformers, freedom fighters, thinkers, scientists, literary figures - is now an extended township of mindless migrants (who find every kind of encroachment therapeutic) and the vain purists among natives (who pledge fabricated allegiance to yesteryear heroes on the cusp of Bhandarkar Road and Prabhat Road) 

Having played unforgettable characters on stage and screen alike - whether the central Nana Phadnavis, peripheral Maruti Kamble, or the surreal Brahmin from Ray's Sadgati - and being a harbinger of the Grips theatre movement in India, you deserve a lot more from an industry which has very little to do with industriousness. Wish we could watch you play the professor in Alekar's Miki and Memsahib and wish your dream of staging Strindberg's 'Father' had materialized the way you had envisioned it. Clearly, you were bursting at the seams of your core group which fell short of satiating your appetite. All the same, thank god that you found your way out of it... and the Midas touch of the one and only Ray more than condoned the grave loss that you had to sustain in theatre.  
We profusely admire your courage and conviction in turning an accidental producer, without the deep pockets such a plunge calls for, solely for the sake of good cinema. Having said that, you deserve better support from the people you invest in; some of them are now a shadow of their former selves. The biggest problem with mediocrity is its contagion effect - one doesn't realize when monotony creeps into one's performances and worse, when one unknowingly cultivates a propensity for coping with mutual admiration societies churning out subpar products, one after another. Any day, we prefer to catch a fleeting glimpse of yours sharing screen space with Gregory Peck and Roger Moore in Sea Wolves (or even suffer the wrath of custom officer Sudarshan Kumar from the bearable no-brainer Kale Dhande Gorey Log)          

Waiting for the day when you get the God sent opportunity to play a character of a league now virtually extinct - whether Professor Isak Borg from Bergman's Wild Strawberries, Kanji Watanabe from Kurosawa's Ikiru, Nilakanta Bagchi from Ghatak's Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, or even Mukunda Lahiri from Ray's Nayak. In the hope lies the scope!
Blast from the past: 
Thought piece, India Infoline     

The Labyrinth of Discovery: A tête-à-tête with Sara Rai

Sara Rai
is a prolific writer, editor of anthologies, and translator of modern Hindi and Urdu fiction. Her stature is not a mathematical function of her great lineage (granddaughter of Munshi Premchand) but the outcome of her soul-searching literary voyages in dignified solitude, unmindful of awards and accolades including the prized Coburg Rückert Prize. 

Left mesmerized by her poignantly reflective essay “You will be the Katherine Mansfield of Hindi”, I was keen to establish contact with this maverick thought leader who seems to have connected several dots of geometry-defying lines and curves through her soulful writings. She graciously obliged and paved the way for a heartfelt conversation.   

 Excerpts from the Q & A...

How were your growing-up years? Who were your favourite writers as a young girl? 

 I was born in Allahabad and that is where I spent my childhood and teenage years. We lived in one of the colonial bungalows that Allahabad used to be known for. The pace of life was slow, and there was plenty of time to observe the trees and the birds. We had a limited interaction with the town since the bungalows were far apart even from the neighbours. There were a lot of books in the house, quite a few in English, Hindi and Urdu and some in Bangla. I read Enid Blyton as a young child of seven or eight but my curiosity, especially in my teenage years, soon began to extend to other books in the house, some of which I read without understanding them. I remember reading the Sartre trilogy, The Age of Reason, Reprieve and Iron in the Soul at the age of thirteen or fourteen with no idea of what was being said. I was attracted to books and a little later I enjoyed reading the Russians…Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev. I could relate easily to them. There were others: Katherine Mansfield, Francoise Sagan, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Herman Hesse, Maupassant, Kafka, who was a huge favourite in my college years. There were a lot of books in the house and since many of my relatives wrote something or the other, I was born, so to speak, into a life of literature.

 How was student life at St. Mary's, Allahabad? What were your favourite subjects? Any role models? 

 Life at St. Mary’s was not very different from other convent schools in the sixties. It was a Roman Catholic institution and most of the nuns who taught us were Germans from Bavaria. They enforced strict discipline and there was pin drop silence in all the classrooms and corridors when classes were on. It was more or less a rote education and I now see that in the mechanical exercise of memorizing the lessons, a sort of mental blindness was created in the students, which was quite an obstacle to education. In Math, the teacher solved the problems and wrote them on the blackboard from where we were supposed to copy them neatly in our exercise books. But English was taught very correctly with an emphasis on enunciation, on where the stress should fall in particular words and so on. We were not allowed to speak in Hindi during school hours and if caught doing so, you were supposed to pay a fine, though I didn’t hear of anyone actually doing so. We spoke in Hindi very often, especially during the lunch break. That this supposed ban on speaking Hindi was humiliating occurred to me only later. But it must have helped in learning English. I was fond of literature and art, though art as it was taught was again subject to rules that may have actually destroyed any artistic inclinations. But I did dabble in it a little later and made a few paintings of my own, most of which mercifully have now been lost. There were no particular role models for me at school. 

 Were there any extended family gatherings during your formative years? Did the interaction at such times shape your literary ambition in any way, or the choice of vocation?

 My uncle Amrit Rai lived right across the road from us, so there was constant interaction between us. In the summers we’d go to Ranikhet together and spend a couple of months there. It was easy to let bungalows in the hills in those days. In the family gatherings conversations often focused on language but it was all very informal. There was quite a lot of joking and chatter. My uncle was rather gregarious, just as my father was quiet, introverted and, not that he needed to, led an almost ascetic life. I remember my father telling me about the Tolstoy story “How much land does a man need?” and the story left its impact on me when I read it. These are things that shape your sensibility. In family gatherings if a puzzling word cropped up in the conversations, dictionaries were immediately brought out. There was a curiosity to find out the origins, the root, particularly of Urdu words. Of course, this was a sort of linguistic training. There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to write stories of my own, though it took me a long time to get started.

 Tell us more about your parents and their published writing, likes and dislikes.

 My mother and her sister, my aunt wrote their stories first in Urdu script which they were used to writing and later transcribed the stories into Hindi, for there was a greater ease and reach of publication in Hindi. Most of their stories were published in the literary magazine Kahani, edited by my father Sripat Rai, or Kalpana, which were the reputed journals of the time. The editorials that my father wrote for Kahani as Kahani ki Baat were later published as a book with the same title by Saraswati Press. The book is now out of print. I recently put together my mother’s and aunt’s stories as a collection with the title Mahalsara ka Ek Khel aur Anya Kahaniyan by Moghal Mahmood and Zahra Rai, published by Vani Prakashan. 

My father was as much a painter as he was an editor and publisher. For about twenty years of his life, he painted fairly obsessively and also held solo exhibitions. Some of his paintings were sent to the 7thTokyo Biennale in 1963. In the sporadic conversations I had with him about painting, he told me about some of the materials and techniques that went into making a painting. While talking of other painters, he hinted that his own preference was for impasto in which undiluted paint is applied with a palette knife so thickly onto the canvas that it stands out above the surface of the painting, causing light to be reflected in new ways. Because he had spent a fair amount of time in Calcutta, he was a fluent speaker of Bangla and was addicted to Rabindra Sangeet. He was present at the funeral of Tagore and the great outpouring of grief left a lasting impression on him. He would often speak of it.

Although your dad cited the example of Katherine Mansfield, the context of Hindi was not lost on him. So, in a way, he was consistent with his insistence that you should write in your mother tongue.

Yes. My father was fluent in several languages, but when it came to writing fiction, he thought one could best express oneself in the mother tongue, and he wanted me to write in Hindi. My relationship with language has not been straightforward. Since I lived in U.P., at home I spoke only in Hindi, but I heard Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Bangla being spoken. I constantly tuned in to the polished Urdu diction of my grandmother but did most of my reading in English. Given this backdrop, I could never have been monolingual. I have discussed the process of struggle, the groping and seeking that has gone into my experience of writing fiction in the “Katherine Mansfield” essay that has recently appeared with the title I originally wrote it under - “On Not Writing”- in The Book of Indian EssaysTwo Hundred Years of English Prose edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, published by Black Kite/Hachette.    

How was the experience of helping your dad with the Kahani journal? Did the thought ever occur to you, of taking over the editorship and keeping the journal alive and kicking?

 Helping my father sift through the piles of stories that arrived to be considered for publication in Kahani was exciting but also arduous. In my English medium school, I had studied only elementary Hindi and most of my reading had been done in English. So, this was really when I actually started reading Hindi fiction. My father published Kahani entirely on his own. He did not want the journal to carry advertisements nor was there money from any other source. He published it purely for the love of it, with a view to shaping contemporary Hindi literature and he did achieve this purpose. I was quite young then, barely out of college. There was no question of taking over the editorship. Apart from being young, I did not have the competence or the experience for the job.

How was the experience of the Charles Wallace Residency program?

I did go to Norwich, to the University of East Anglia, on a Charles Wallace Residency program for translation in 2003. I had taken along the short stories of Vinod Kumar Shukla, a writer whom I have long admired, and planned to translate the stories while I was there. I didn’t, as it turned out. I started writing my own novel and I wrote the first three chapters in English. It was the usual seesawing between the two languages that has been with me for a long time. I abandoned these chapters later and wrote the whole thing in Hindi. It was many years later, last year, in fact, that Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and I together translated the stories of Vinod Kumar Shukla and they were published by Harper Collins with the title Blue is Like Blue.

For someone who is equally at home in Hindi, Urdu, and English, is the economy of English still your best friend for articulation and first-draft expression?

I have said this before, but my relationship with language has been complex. Ideas don’t come in a particular language but may be a series of visual images or emotional responses to situations or scenes, when your mind suddenly lights up, something that I think of as ‘organic moments’ that later get shaped into a story. Often it is the atmosphere and the setting of the story that determines the language it is written in. Whichever language I choose to write in, the other languages that I am familiar with are simultaneously present in my mind, influencing the tone of the story and its texture. I don’t really make first drafts. Usually, it is the only draft and I keep working on the same draft till I feel I have got it right. I have found though, that English comes to me more easily when I am writing a critical or review essay and about the process of writing itself, whereas fiction comes more naturally in Hindi or Hindustani.

Your initial struggles to find your feet as a writer may have held you back, longer than you would have liked - but those very struggles in turn made you the writer you are. Is that right?  

The process of writing begins much before you have put anything down on the page. The impressions that eventually mutate into fiction get embedded in the memory while life is being lived when one is not thinking of a story at all. Those impressions are only remembered later when one is actually doing the writing. Writing is a constant struggle in all sorts of ways, whenever you start writing, late or early. The struggle each writer faces while starting out on a narrative or a poem can only be described as a feeling of free fall into an abyss. There is nothing around for you to hold on to, except a scrap of an idea or image that may have come to you in one of the ‘organic moments’ that I have mentioned earlier. You have to dredge something up from nothing and this is the hardest thing to do, to give coherence to what is really only a jumble of images, sounds, and broken thoughts. I have always found that the story takes shape on the page. If you try to think it up from before, it usually fails. Once you begin writing, one word follows another and may result in an image or a metaphor, and eventually a story. Or it may not. And then you are having a bad day, which is not infrequent either. It is a very mysterious business, rather difficult to understand. 

Which among your published writings is closer to your heart - forgive the cliche the question houses, but I wish to know which of those writings (your debut story Lucky Horace included) came out exactly as you wished them to?

As I said earlier, there is little preconceived idea about what the story you are writing will become. The whole process of writing is a sort of accident. So, I cannot say that some story came out exactly as I wished it to. But in the writing of it, there comes a point when you feel that the story has come to a close, and you stop. And it is only then that you assess what you have written. Each story works out differently, but if I had to choose, I would say that my story ‘Bhulbhulaiyaan’ (The Labyrinth) was one where all the elements fell together, the setting, the character, the voice, the tone, the texture. I wrote ‘Lucky Horace’ when I was eight years old and it was more like a discovery that I could write rather than a real story.

Is the evocative imagery of your stories rooted in your childhood days of freewheeling observation? I found the pressure cooker whistle in a couple of stories.

Memory plays a huge role in writing fiction. The setting of a story and the ground on which it stands needs a physical location. To describe a scene in detail, those details have to be familiar to the writer and that is where memory comes in. You don’t quite know which Sunday afternoon, which bird singing on the pine tree, which visitor who dropped by, or which sentence, forgotten till now, spoken by an acquaintance will suddenly surface when you are writing. The routine or the commonplace is often what one’s days are composed of and it is these ‘dull’ days (on which you may notice the whistle of the pressure cooker) that offer the space for thought and yield experiences that stay with you and become stories.

Between writing and translations, would you prefer one over another given a choice - or do both mingle in peaceful coexistence like how English, Hindi and Urdu do for you?

It is not really a question of preferring writing over translation, or the other way round. Both writing and translation come from the same place, which is the ground, on which you stand, of being a writer. The two activities of writing and translation belong together and keep developing and expanding each other’s range. Where the repository of words that you possess is helpful in the process of translating, the activity of translation involves an intimate engagement with a text that is not your own, but which in the process of translation becomes your own. It enriches your storehouse of words and helps you to arrive at new ways of tackling your material.



PS: In the course of writing this blogpost, I also discovered 'Lamhi' - a quarterly published and edited by Vijay Rai who mailed me special editions of Lamhi featuring Sripat Rai, Shivmurti, and Dr. Gyan Chaturvedi. He also helped me secure a copy of Amrit Rai's priceless biography of Munshiji titled "Premchand: Kalam ka Sipahi". 

Vijayji, thanks a ton for you prompt help, and I shall soon write about Lamhi and its contents in a separate blogspot. For now, I can only profusely agree with Late Doodhnath Singhji's earthy compliment "विजय ई बतावा कि लमही पत्रिका का नाम तोहरे जेहन में कैसे आयल | आज तक कोई और ई नाम से पत्रिका काहे नहीं निकाललस" 

'Lamhi' is one of the best tributes to Munshiji in contemporary times who is as relevant today as he was decades back. The more you read him, the more you miss him:

बुढ़िया का क्रोध तुरन्त स्नेह में बदल गया, और स्नेह भी वह नहीं, जो प्रगल्भ होता हे और अपनी सारी कसक शब्दों में बिखेर देता है। यह मूक स्नेह था, खूब ठोस, रस और स्वाद से भरा हुआ।

मेरा जीवन सपाट, समतल मैदान है, जिसमें कहीं-कहीं गढ़े तो हैं, पर टीलों, पर्वतों, घने जंगलों, गहरी घाटियों और खण्डहरों का स्थान नहीं है। जो सज्जन पहाड़ों की सैर के शौकीन हैं, उन्हें तो यहाँ निराशा ही होगी।